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FCC Fines 2 Networks For Violating Limits On Kids' Show Ads

By Lisa de Moraes
Friday, October 22, 2004; Page C01

Children's television networks owned by Viacom and Disney have agreed to pony up $1 million and $500,000, respectively, to end Federal Communications Commission investigations into whether they violated the agency's rules on advertising in children's programming.

It's the largest FCC fine for violating restrictions on advertising to kids on TV.

In fact, the price tags to settle the charges against Nickelodeon and ABC Family networks are nearly identical to the indecency fines the FCC recently slapped on broadcast networks CBS and Fox. In September, the FCC fined CBS-owned stations $550,000 over the broadcasting of Janet Jackson's breast, and this month the commission nailed Fox stations with a whopping $1.2 million fine for airing a bachelor party on the reality series "Married by America" that included pixelated stripper breasts and butts and spanking.

But though the fines are similar in dollar value, yesterday's FCC story did not involve women's breasts in any way, shape or form. So you probably will not see this story covered breathlessly on "Entertainment Tonight" or the front page of any major metropolitan newspaper.

The advertising violations were discovered in routine audits of cable system operators, an FCC spokesman explained to The TV Column.

Federal regulations stipulate that children's programming may contain no more than 10 1/2 minutes of advertising per hour on weekends and 12 minutes per hour on weekdays.

Viacom acknowledges that Nickelodeon violated that regulation nearly 600 times over approximately 10 months, representing the equivalent of 1,021 extra 30-second ads. As part of its settlement, Viacom agreed to reduce Nickelodeon's ad inventory by the same 1,021 30-second spots over the next 10 months.

FCC regulations also prohibit a network from running ads for products associated with the programming being aired. (In other words, you can't run a commercial for a SpongeBob SquarePants doll or video during a telecast of "SpongeBob SquarePants.") Viacom reported that by its own estimate, during the same inquiry period it violated that rule about 145 times.

Yesterday Nickelodeon said in a statement that it was "extremely upset" to discover that it had exceeded its allotted commercial time and blamed "human errors and computer system problems that occurred in our commercial logging systems."

The kids network said it had not intentionally violated the FCC rules. Nickelodeon apologized for the mistake but noted that the "vast majority" of hours of programming examined came in well under the FCC advertising cap.

ABC Family says it unintentionally placed ads for associated products in programming during 31 half-hour telecasts from July 2003 to July '04.

An ABC Family spokeswoman said in a statement that the error was the result of a computer traffic system "that did not read for notations regarding special children's advertising restrictions."

"We derived no economic benefit from the error, as these commercials were never sold for placement in related shows," she added.

"Today, the commission's Enforcement Bureau resolves major investigations regarding our children's programming rules," FCC Chairman Michael Powell said yesterday in a statement. He noted that Nickelodeon and ABC Family are "hugely popular with children" and are carried on almost all cable systems nationwide, reaching more than 85 million households.

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